The Great Dog Robber

Among the celebrated actors who have died recently, James Garner deserves particular celebration for his charm, good humor, and versatility. If you’re nostalgic for what Southern California was really like in the 1970s, when real estate wasn’t yet sky high and there still were open spaces, look no further than the six seasons of The Rockford Files made back then. My excuse for celebrating him in Lingua Franca, however, is his use of an odd military term: dog robber.

Garner was cast as a dog robber in the 1964 movie, The Americanization of Emily. In contrast with most movies about World War II, especially movies about the D-Day invasion, it was both antiwar and a comedy. Set in London around the time of the invasion of France, its hero is Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Madison, played by Garner, who at the start of the war had enlisted in the Marines, only to come to a revelation:

“There I was splashing away in the shoals of Guadalcanal. It suddenly occurred to me a man could get killed doing this sort of thing. …

“I discovered I was a coward. That’s my new religion. I’m a big believer in it. Cowardice will save the world. It’s not war that’s insane, you see. It’s the morality of it. It’s not greed and ambition that makes war, it’s goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons.”

So he accepted a previous offer to be a dog robber.

What’s that? The film explains with this opening narrative: “In World War II, few men served their countries more ably than a small group of unheralded heroes known as the Dog Robbers. A Dog Robber is the personal attendant of a general or admiral, and his job is to keep his general or admiral well clothed, well fed and well loved during the battle. Every army and navy in the world has its Dog Robber, but, needless to say, ours were the best.”

The movie develops a romance between Charlie and Emily, a young English widow who is a driver for the Americans, played by Julie Andrews. Great story, but that’s not my concern here. Where did dog robber come from?

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the term back to 1832 with the general meaning “scrounger,” and back to the American Civil War for its military application as an “officer’s orderly or private servant.” For an example from World War I, the OED provides a definition closer to that in the movie: “A person (originally a soldier) skilled at foraging.”

Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang offers this 1865 explanation: “I believe the origin of it is this: If an officer has such a man, he generally allows him to dine from the leavings on the table, so as the man gets what is the dog’s share, he is called a dog robber.”

It turns out that Garner himself had been a dog robber in real life, while serving in the Army during the Korean War. He told Playboy in 1981 that in Japan, at an Army post office, he had bartered mail for materials to make a bar, a theater, a baseball diamond, and a swimming pool, among other things. There, and in The Americanization of Emily, he took dog robbing to new heights.

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